How Do You Trust Locals In SE Asia? The Friend/Scam Dilemma

It was a sunny afternoon in Hanoi last week and I was exploring the Old Quarter & Hoan Kiem Lake.

After being approached by a Vietnamese businessman who was in the shoe cleaning & repair industry I agreed on his services. He looked desperate & my shoes were dirty, so we agreed on 50,000 VND ($2) for both a clean & repair. This was his first price and I really wasnt in the mood for bartering.

The Vulnerable Foreigner

Whilst my shoes were being cleaned, two Vietnamese men approached me and started asking me the usual questions. As my shoes were off, and I was in temporary thongs (flip flops) I had no choice but to entertain their questions. After a brief chat the questions were more serious “Are you travelling with friends?”, “Do you have a girlfriend?”. They offered me cigarettes (for which I refused, I did not want to feel indebt to these guys), and then mentioned they have a friend who wants to learn english and said I would be the perfect teacher. Would I be able to meet her tonight?

At this point the shoe cleaner started talking in Vietnamese to the two gentleman, and I started to get paranoid and really just wanted to walk away but was in a difficult position as my shoes were off. The two men now mentioned that wanted to take me to a local Bia Hoi (local bar) for beers.

Ok, something was up and I needed to get away from these guys.

The shoe cleaner pointed to the holes in my shoes and said $1 to fix. Yep, it was the classic SE Asia price deception, pretend we didnt agree on the price initially and play the ‘dont understand english card’. I didnt care, but I wasnt going to pay him more money so I threw him $2 and walked away with sparkling, holey shoes.

Here were my thoughts:

  • I was cornered in a situation that I couldnt leave easily (the shoe cleaner had my shoes!)
  • I was being asked strange questions about my solo backpacking style and whether I wanted to meet someone to teach them English
  • I was offered cigarettes, classic reciprocal relationship psychology
  • The two groups of people (the two men & the shoe cleaner) were talking to each other in Vietnamese
Dont get me wrong, I was never in any danger – it was the middle of the day right by the busiest intersection in Hanoi.

My South East Asian Dilemma

Were these guys, friendly local Vietnamese that wanted to drink some beers with a foreigner? (this sounds like the best way to kill an afternoon). Or was I going to end up in an ice bath with missing kidneys, used on some anti solo backpacking expose on an Australian a current affair show?

About 30 minutes after, a young Vietnamese girl approached me and was asking me the basic questions. She was shy but still friendly, as if she was genuinely interested about me & Australia – but was she trying to scam me? I was paranoid from the last encounter that I just said goodbye and walked off.

How do I know who is trying to scam me/steal my liver compared to the locals that just want to have beer with me?

I Knew What To Expect

Dont get me wrong, I have been to SE Asia before and I am aware of the deception, bartering, & dodginess of it all. But I am not sure if I am just more paranoid in my mid-twenties or there is a better way to assess a friend from a scammer?

I have spent some time in The Philippines and most of the people I became friends with were locals (I still communicate with them on Facebook). This was a much better experience than partying with foreigners in my opinion. Can I not do that in Vietnam and am I going to have to accept drinking beers with Australians? (Nooooooooooo!!!).

UPDATE: 19th December

The day after this post was published my phone was slipped out my pocket on the streets of Hanoi. Three days later my iPod was taken from my bungalow in the countryside village of Mai Chau.


  1. Chi Đào says

    I am sorry to be rude here. But I just go around CS and accidentally stop by your blog. Sorry if I make you annoying and you can delete my comment by the way. Just because am Hanoian and i feel so sorry if you havent found any reliable thing here. Actually sometimes people approach you just because they are curious about the foreigners or they would like to speak English. Seriously. It sounds weird and funny but sometimes true. I dont deny that you can meet the thief and the cheat anytime on the street but not all the people on the street are thieves and cheats, right? I do hope you could find something interesting and sweet here because honestly most of Hanoians are friendly and warm. You can walk further a little bit from Hoankiem lake for other lakes in Hanoi for sightseeing or drinking or doing some stuffs. Enjoy your trip and goodluck. Chi.

    • Chris Schwarz says

      Hi Chi,

      You’re not rude or annoying. Thanks for commenting actually.

      This was an observational post on my 10 days in Hanoi. As a foreigner, I am treated very differently and at least most financial transactions ive dealt with on the street level have just had a feeling of trickery and price deception. Motorbikes and Taxi driver especially. Give me a tax for being a foreigner I really dont care, just be up front with your intentions and dont pretend you mis heard me or dont speak much english or dont have change.

      Im sure there are many more friendly Vietnamese than the generic street businessman – Im just after some advice on how to find these people.

      Hope to see you at a CS Event!

      • Chi Đào says

        I do want to know how to find the trustworthy people too. I mean we are travelling to the strange places, how can prevent all the risks and dangers? You heard and knew some problems that you have to face in this country. Its enough, isnt? Moreover good people are everywhere too.
        Let me sharing my thoughts about your thoughts
        I was cornered in a situation that I couldnt leave easily (the shoe cleaner had my shoes!) -> If you don’t want to walk away with flip flop, just sit nicely haha. I mean ignore them if you feel uncomfortble and unsafe. Reading or texting something for example (make sure that your cellphone is not Iphone or some kinds expensive). But you should have your shoes be clean by the cleaner when you go for food in the restaurant. The waiter or the staff of the restaurant will be kindly responsible to look after your shoes. At least you will not be approach by 2 gentle men.

        I was being asked strange questions about my solo backpacking style and whether I wanted to meet someone to teach them English -> More and more people study English. Not all of them have chance to study with the native speaker. Refuse them. Its fine because you’re busy and don’t stay long. But I just thought in this situation they did offer you to become that girl’s boyfriend but English teacher hahaa. Kidding but you should be careful with these offers like that. They are not safe. Solo backpacking style is strange for Vietnamese because they are dependent people in independent country. Children stay with parents until they get married. Its hard to persuade their parents to move out and travel around the world, especially alone. And people do think that how can be happy and enjoy life when travelling alone. Its risky, and dangerous. They are scared. Me scared too. Again, I am guessing they asked whether you were solo traveller because its easy for them to scam you, didn’t they? Walk away as soon as possible.

        I was offered cigarettes, classic reciprocal relationship psychology -> I don’t know. People often offer cigarettes like you are their guest. I am not sure about their purpose but it was wise of you to refuse.

        The two groups of people (the two men & the shoe cleaner) were talking to each other in Vietnamese -> They talked about you for sure. But nothing to worry. What can they treat you in the middle of day and in the busiest point of city right?

        Im not the people that you met so I don’t understand why they did with you. I just give you my thoughts for you reference if you plan to stay here longer. Again, just go with it Chris. Hanoi is charmly waiting you to discover. Let me list some food places that you can go and give it a try instead of going around Hoankiem lake. New day restaurant in Mã Mây street for Vietnamese food. Go to their kitchen and pick whatever you like. Lý Văn Phúc is a chicken food street where you should give it a try. Cafe Giảng on Nguyễn Hữu Huân street is popular with egg coffee or egg cacao. Nem nướng on Hàng Chuối street for you to try the food from the South…

        Forgive me for being so talkative. Once again goodluck Chris. Enjoy Vietnam if you can.

  2. Tra Pham says

    Do couchsurfing if you want to be with the locals. Vietnam has many more to offer you than those businessmen.

    I believe that there are some people who approach you just for practicing English, but I think there is nothing wrong if you stay away from them. As a “vulnerable” tourist, you never know what can happen. So it’s good to take care of yourself.

    Also, I did read on CS about the lost of your phone. I’m sorry to hear that :( I didn’t know that those crazy people can invent such a tactic. But did you try to get a police report so that you could have an insurance? My Danish friend had the same problem and he got the report by bribing the police about 10USD. Ask a local to help you if you want to talk with the police.

    Good luck!

    • Chris Schwarz says

      Thanks for the tips mate. Ill get onto that police report and try to salvage what I can from my insurance company.

      Ive been heading to the CS weekly meetings, and planned to catch up with some people tonight – unfortunately all their numbers were in my stolen phone =/

      Some bad luck coupled with some bad decisions have made my time in Vietnam not that much fun. Ill head to some beaches in a few weeks where hopefully things will pick up.

      • Tra Pham says

        Another tip: Never buy anything from the street vendors. As a local I never do that. Sometimes I feel sorry for them because they are poor, but actually they tend to cheat more than people in markets and shops. Once you buy something from them, they will disappear and you will never see them again.

        If you buy things from shops, you can always come back to make a fuss if you are not satisfied with the stuff.

        • Chris Schwarz says

          I tend to not have an issue from street vendors, I understand that I am not probably going to be able to return an item.
          I havent even been bartering in the last week, I dont mind paying their first asking price… that extra 20,000 dong is worth a lot more to them than it is to me. Ive lost the energy to barter.

  3. says

    Ugh! I know what you mean! I don’t mind having chats with people but I am always paranoid that they want to sell me something, or scam me somehow. I never want to accept anything from people cause I am afraid they will later demand an incredible fee for the service. I bet those two guys were trying to lure you to a brothel or something.

    • Chris Schwarz says

      Hi Jade. Thanks for commenting.

      6 months down the track & backpacking throughout India and I have to say that my experience is quite different. Whilst there are rickshaw drivers that pretend to have no change, persistent trinket sellers in the tourist areas; the Indian people appear to be a lot more genuine & trustworthy.

  4. says

    This reminds me on an experience I had in Paris a few years ago. You have people constantly approaching you with their scams and cheap trinkets, not to mention the stories you hear about pickpocket tricks like the one where the mother throws her baby at you to get you to drop you things then takes them.

    Anyway, I was in one of the central tourist spots, near the subway, and two people approached me asking for directions. I couldn’t help but think that maybe it was some kind of trick so they could get my attention and pickpocket me. I almost said no and walked off but I stayed and helped them and they didn’t try to pickpocket me and I felt good about helping someone, but I almost walked away. It made me realise what a negative effect the pickpockets and scammers have on, not just those they target, but everyone

    • Chris Schwarz says

      Yeah, exactly it’s a tough mind game you have to play with yourself. Especially when you are solo travelling. I picked up more of the basic tricks though, whenever a taxi driver/random guy in street asks me how long ive been in their country, I always say something like “Ive been living here for 1 year now”. They quickly leave you alone then.

      Wow, I had no idea that Paris was so similar. Ive heard about the “Gypsy Gangs” of Eastern Europe flooding West Europe to run their games when the EU opened up.

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